Book of Mormon Lesson #13: “The Allegory of the Olive Trees,” Jacob 5-7 (Gospel Doctrine)
Posted by joespencer on March 8, 2012
As I mentioned in last post, I’ll be tackling all of Jacob 4-7 in this post. I noted last time that chapters 1-3 form a unit, while chapters 4-6 form a distinct unit, and chapter 7 forms a unit all its own. So I’ll be addressing chapter 4 in connection with chapters 5-6. And I’ll add some notes about chapter 7 as well.
I’ll be frank at the start that I don’t much like writing or talking about the allegory of the olive tree. Largely that’s because I find that it’s one of few places in the Book of Mormon where Latter-day Saints have done seriously dedicated work to understand the text. (If only we collectively used the same sort of care in reading Isaiah!) I’m mostly happy to let people work on those already productive readings. It’s also, though, because I find the dominant interpretation a bit overpowering. I suspect there are other, quite important things going on in the allegory than a kind of basic map of covenantal history, but I have a hard time finding my way out of the dominant approach.
But my task remains my task. We’ll see what can’t be learned by coming to it again. I’ll take up chapters 4 and 6 first, setting up the introduction to and conclusions drawn from the quotation of Zenos’s allegory. I’ll then turn directly to chapter 5, the allegory itself. Finally, I’ll add a few words about chapter 7.
Setting Up the Allegory: Jacob 4, 6
The first verse of chapter 4 seems to be a stalled comment on chapters 1-3:
Now behold, it came to pass that I, Jacob, having ministered much unto my people in word….
Jacob never finishes this statement, but goes on to talk—at some length—about the task of writing. I take it the point is something like this: I did a lot of talking to my people, but it did little good, and so I now commit my oral teachings to writing, and I’ll focus my efforts on the written word from now on. I’ll think we’ll see a nice confirmation of this later: Jacob 7 opens with a hint that Jacob had long since retired from the task of trying to steer things in the right direction with his people. From all this, it would seem that his sermonizing in chapters 2-3 didn’t have the effect he had hoped.
At any rate, though, Jacob finds himself focused on the written word. He offers a few clarifications about the task of writing in the first three verses, but I want to take a look at what he says beginning in verse 4 especially:
For, for this intent have we written these things: that they [subsequent Nephites and Lamanites] may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming. (Jacob 4:4)
Here we get the first overt statement of something that’s been lurking in the words of Nephi. From the beginning, the Nephites have startlingly exact knowledge of the coming Christian era, exact knowledge that has, frankly, led to a good deal of ridicule from unbelieving readers of the Book of Mormon. Unlike their forebears in the Old World, Nephite prophets seem to know the details of Christ’s life, etc., quite perfectly, as if they were readers of the New Testament. But if this can be seen as a weakness of the Book of Mormon, it can also be seen as one of its real strengths. It proposes a messianic theology that deserves more attention than we’ve given it: for the Nephites, the Messiah has, as it were, always already come. It’s that that sets Nephi’s thoughts about typology and the like in motion; and it’s that that will orient so much of what follows in the Book of Mormon. Here we get our first real taste of it.
But the really strange thing is that Jacob now goes on to attribute this same messianism to the Old World prophets!
And not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us. Behold, they believed in Christ and worshiped the Father in his name. And also we worship the Father in his name. … Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy. And, having all these witnesses, we obtain a hope and our faith becometh unshaken. (Jacob 4:4-6)
This is the really startling move (and Lehi made it before Jacob, it seems to me; see both 1 Nephi 1 and 1 Nephi 10). Where do the Nephites get off believing that their kind of clear prophetic anticipation of the Christic era was had by their Old World predecessors? Actually, I’m not convinced Nephi believed this. Lehi and Jacob seem to have believed it, but it isn’t clear to me that Nephi saw anything like this at least in Isaiah. Perhaps he saw it in some of the other prophets—Zenos and Zenock and Neum, etc.—since he quoted them in 1 Nephi 19 in order to spell out a few details of Christ’s coming. But what sense should be made of that? There are some indications that Zenos was from the Northern Kingdom, and there is reason to believe that the brass plates themselves were a Northern Kingdom collection of texts for the most part. Does all of that suggest that the Northern Kingdom had prophets in the Nephite vein, that the Nephite prophetic experience is a continuation of a certain Israelite tradition, but not the tradition of the Southern Kingdom (from which the prophets of our Old Testament are drawn)? There are questions to be addressed here. What matters for the moment, though, is just that Jacob is convinced that the Nephites are not alone in their approach. (That conviction would, in my opinion, have a real effect on Joseph Smith, who was determined to read Nephite prophetic experience into the Old Testament when he was working on the New Translation.)
Jacob, interestingly, even provides an example:
For this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to [Christ]. And for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness, even as it was accounted unto Abraham in the wilderness to be obedient unto the commands of God in offering up his son Isaac, which was a similitude of God and his Only Begotten Son. (Jacob 4:5)
Now, there’s a lot going on here, much to be unraveled, but the basic point should be clear: Jacob sees the Abrahamic sacrifice as a “similitude” to the sacrifice of Christ, and he sees it as akin to the Nephites’ own relationship to the Law of Moses. That deserves some thought in itself. But so do the complicating questions that should accompany it: What relation does Jacob’s claim here have to Paul’s similar analysis in Galatians and Romans? What is the relation between “sanctified” and “accounted” here? Is there a particular emphasis, for Jacob, on “in the wilderness”? Why is there talk here of “commands” in the plural? Is Jacob quite clearly attributing knowledge to Abraham of the similitude, or is this a subsequent interpretation? Is there an implication here that Abraham offered Isaac to the Father in the name of Christ, or is it significant that Jacob suddenly speaks at the end of the verse not of the Father and Christ, but of “God and his Only Begotten Son”? But let me move on.
With all this prophetic knowledge, Jacob has said, they “obtain a hope” and their faith “becometh unshaken.” He goes on to say of this hope and faith that, by it, “we truly can command in the name of Jesus, and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea” (Jacob 4:6). That’s pretty startling, and I’ll leave the claim to Jacob. But he goes on with this important—similarly Pauline—claim:
Nevertheless, the Lord God sheweth us our weakness, that we may know that it is by his grace and his great condescensions unto the children of men that we have power to do these things. (Jacob 4:7)
Mighty power through faith, but not granted without weakness, making clear exactly what the relationship is between the faithful and their God. Paul would be quite happy with this claim—unless he were to worry about plagiarism. Jacob then goes on to offer a few verses of praise for a God so powerful, then says the following:
Wherefore, brethren, seek not to counsel the Lord, but to take counsel from his hand. For behold, ye yourselves know that he counseleth in wisdom and in justice and in great mercy over all his works. Wherefore, beloved, be reconciled unto him through the atonement of Christ his Only Begotten Son, that ye may obtain a resurrection, according to the power of the resurrection which is in Christ, and be presented as the firstfruits of Christ unto God, having faith and having obtained a good hope of glory in him before he manifesteth himself in the flesh. (Jacob 4:10-11)
Jacob urges his people to get their relationship to God quite straight: He is the counselor; they are the counseled. They are, then, to be—and here he draws on his own closing words from his sermon in 2 Nephi 6-10, on which Nephi drew as well in 2 Nephi 25:23—”reconciled” to God (remember that it’s only by grace that we’re saved!). And once that’s clear, then his people—”before he manifesteth himself in the flesh”—can gain a real hope in Christ. Again with the Nephite messianism: a fully Christian redemption but before Christ even shows up.
But finally, at this point, Jacob seems to recognize how bizarre all this can sound:
And now, beloved, marvel not that I tell you these things. For why not speak of the atonement of Christ, and attain to a perfect knowledge of him, as to attain to the knowledge of a resurrection and the world to come? (Jacob 4:12)
We tend to read this as a kind of justification for seeking an understanding of an incomprehensible atonement. Jacob means nothing of the sort, it would seem, in context. He means rather to justify talking about Christ in an anticipatory way, to justify Nephite messianism itself. Why should we know all this in advance (Alma will talk about the same in Alma 39-42)? But he puts the burden of denial on his readers: You tell me why we shouldn’t have such prophetic knowledge! Well, and he offers a word of justification as well:
Behold, my brethren, he that prophesieth, let him prophesy to the understanding of men. For the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be. Wherefore, these things are manifested unto us plainly for the salvation of our souls. (Jacob 4:13)
Beginning from yet another Pauline trope (“prophesy to the understanding of men”!), Jacob here justifies Nephite prophecy by claiming that the Spirit speaks truth, and so speaks of things both “as they really are” and “as they really will be.” The temporal gap between Jacob’s day and the actual coming of Christ is, in some sense, irrelevant. The truth of the Messiah, the truth of the redemption, is eternal, and it interrupts time as such—penetrating it at every moment. There’s no reason to put off full understanding of the Messiah until after He’s actually arrived and done His work.
And then Jacob pins all this again on the Old World prophets:
But behold, we are not witnesses alone in these things. For God also spake them unto prophets of old! (Jacob 4:13)
“Don’t take my word for it!” But now Jacob goes on to explain a bit more about this claim:
But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people, and they despised the words of plainness and killed the prophets and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness—which blindness came by looking beyond the mark—they must needs fall, for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand because they desired it. And because they desired it, God hath done it that they may stumble. (Jacob 4:14)
On the surface, what Jacob says here seems to mean something like the following: The Old World prophets saw with quite as much clarity as the Nephite prophets the future coming of Christ, etc., but because their hearers refused to hear them, seeking instead things they couldn’t understand, God took away the plainness with which the prophets might have prophesied, and instead gave prophetic messages they couldn’t understand. The consequence would be that only those who either by their own prophetic experience came to know of the coming Christ or by simply living after the coming of the Christ could make any sense of the Old Testament prophets. That’s quite a claim. And it’s predicated on a lot of less-than-fully-clear claims here: What blindness exactly? And how did they despise the words of plainness? What does it mean to seek things one cannot understand? What does it mean to look beyond the mark? And what is the fall spoken of here? And so on. There’s much to be sorted out still.
But the basic picture, it would seem, is clear. Jacob doesn’t think the Old World prophecies clearly talk about the Christ, etc. But he does think the Old World prophets knew of Christ and hoped in His glory. But why talk about all this? Well, because it’s going to set up what Jacob’s going to do with Zenos. He’s about to read from Zenos—an Old World prophet—at great length, and he’s going then to make it clear by drawing on his own Christic prophecy. He sets this all up in verses 15-18:
And now, I, Jacob, am led on by the Spirit unto prophesying, for I perceive by the workings of the Spirit which is in me that by the stumbling of the Jews they will reject the stone upon which they might build and have safe foundation. But behold, according to the scriptures, this stone shall become the great and the last and the only sure foundation upon which the Jews can build. And now, my beloved, how is it possible that these, after having rejected the sure foundation, can ever build upon it, that it may become the head of their corner? Behold, my beloved brethren, I will unfold this mystery unto you, if I do not by any means get shaken from my firmness in the Spirit and stumble because of my overanxiety for you. (Jacob 4:15-18)
That’s what he’s going to do. But we want to jump past the long quotation, for the moment, to see what Jacob has to say about all this in chapter 6. How does he work with this Old World prophecy, and how does it clarify what he’s been saying here?
That Jacob’s going to interpret the text in light of his own prophecy, thus following Nephi’s pattern with Isaiah in 2 Nephi 25-30, is quite clear from the verse verse in chapter 6:
And now, behold, my brethren: As I said unto you that I would prophesy, behold, this is my prophecy, that the things which this prophet Zenos spake concerning the house of Israel, in which hel ikened them unto a tame olive tree, must surely come to pass. (Jacob 6:1)
The basic point he draws from this is as follows:
And in the day that he shall set his hand again the second time to recover his people is the day—yea, even the last time—that the servants of the Lord shall go forth in his people to nourish and prune his vineyard. And after that, the end soon cometh. And how blessed are they who have labored diligently in his vineyard! And how cursed are they which shall be cast out into their own place! And the world shall be burned with fire. And how merciful is our God unto us! For he remembereth the house of Israel—both roots and branches—and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long. And they are a stiffnecked and a gainsaying people, but as many as will not harden their hearts shall be saved in the kingdom of God. (Jacob 6:2-4)
Nothing here should be surprising to anyone familiar with the actual allegory. But one might well ask exactly what this has to do with the “mystery” Jacob announced in the last verses of chapter 4. Is there any clarification here of how “the Jews” will come to build on the once-rejected “foundation”? If there is, I fail to see it. Is the allegory suppose to answer that question alone? Or has Jacob actually been indeed shaken from the spirit of prophecy after reading at such length from the text? At any rate, his focus is not on the Jews at any point subsequently in this chapter—but always on the Lehites. What’s to be made of that? At any rate, he goes on with a serious call to repentance, aimed at his own people:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness that ye would repent and come with full purpose of heart and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. And while his arm of mercy is extended towards you in the light of the day, harden not your hearts! Yea, today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts! For why will ye die? (Jacob 6:5-6)
Here there’s a marked return to Psalm 95, employed in the beginning of Jacob 1 (see my last post on this business). Now, finally, Jacob draws on the talk, in that psalm, of “today”—now, incidentally, that his people seem largely to have rejected his message and he’s retreated into the task of writing rather than speaking. It’s as if Jacob now begins to see that the provocation in the wilderness is perhaps being repeated. And so the summons to repentance is real and crucial for Jacob.
Still we wonder, though, what’s become of Jacob’s original focus on the Jews. But from here—”shaken” from his “firmness in the Spirit” due to his “overanxiety” for his people—Jacob will talk only of his people. Indeed, the long allegory that was clearly meant to clarify the “mystery” surrounding the covenant history of the Jews he now “likens” to his own people’s concerns:
For behold, after that ye have been nourished by the good word of God all the day long, will ye bring forth evil fruit, that ye must be hewn down and cast into the fire? (Jacob 6:7)
I’m increasingly convinced that “overanxiety” has indeed won the day, and Jacob has lost the thread of his original intentions. Hoping originally that his people were prepared for an understanding of the covenantal history, of the crucial way things would unfold in the last days, etc., he now begins to simplify, the draw simple lessons about repentance, to let the covenant go in the hopes just of keeping his people focused on their basic duties. Jacob begins to anticipate what will happen with Abinadi later (and which I’ll be explaining and clarifying later).
At any rate, from this point there’s only desperate talk of repentance:
Behold, will ye reject these words? Will ye reject all the words which have been spoken concerning Christ—after that so many have spoken concerning him—and deny the good word of Christ and the power of God and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and quench the Holy Spirit, and make a mock of the great plan of redemption which hath been laid for you? Know ye not that if ye will do these things, that the power of the redemption and the resurrection which is in Christ will bring you to stand with shame and awful guilt before the bar of God? And according to the power of justice—for justice cannot be denied—that ye must go away into that lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever (which lake of fire and brimstone is endless torment)? O, then, my beloved brethren, repent ye! And enter ye in at the strait gate, and continue in the way which is narrow until ye shall obtain eternal life! O be wise! What can I say more? (Jacob 6:8-12)
Jacob is at this point clearly despairing. His words are very reminiscent of 2 Nephi 32 (see my notes), both in terms of what he commands his people to do and in terms of his desperate concern that there’s nothing more he can say to get them to follow his commands. And the story of the Jews, of the covenant, has entirely disappeared.
And now Jacob echoes 2 Nephi 33, basically shutting off all hope for his people:
Finally, I bid you farewell until I shall meet you before the pleasing bar of God, which bar striketh the wicked with awful dread and fear. Amen. (Jacob 6:13)
From this it’s clear that Jacob figured he was done. He had set out to give his people a clearer, deeper understanding of the covenant, and of what privileges they had received in their land of promise, but he ends up just desperately pleading with them to repent—with overanxiety, he’s shaken from his original purposes. And then he closes, apparently in complete despair.
Two consequences we’re left with. First, chapter 7 comes as a bit of a surprise, but it’s a telling surprise. It seems that the Sherem event reinvigorated Jacob’s hope and brought him back to some kind of confidence in his people. We’ll have to see how that plays out later on. For the moment, it’s just crucial to note that, unlike Nephi, Jacob makes a kind of return from his concluding despair and generates a bit of confidence. Second, though Jacob is eventually shaken from his firmness (reducing his prophecy from a clarifying of the mystery to a mere “this will come true”), he nonetheless copied for us the whole of Zenos’s allegory. Jacob doesn’t say anything to clarify it, but we can get to work on it and see what it has to teach us. And that’s what we’ll have to do next.
The Allegory Itself: Jacob 5
There’s something disingenuous about tackling Jacob 5 after working out what I’ve worked out above. There’s a sense in which Jacob abandons it, and maybe I can use that as an excuse not to write about the allegory at length. I’ll refrain from making excuses, however, and get to work.
The classic approach divides Jacob 5 up into a few distinguishable parts:
(1) Getting the original decaying tree to show a bit of promise — Jacob 5:3-6
(2) Planting new trees and grafting wild branches into the original — Jacob 5:7-14
(3) Inspecting the trees and finding only good news — Jacob 5:15-28
(4) Inspecting the trees and finding only bad news — Jacob 5:29-48
(5) Outlining a new plan for the several trees — Jacob 5:49-69
(6) Executing the new plan quite successfully — Jacob 5:70-77
I’ll say just a few words about each of these.
The first sequence of the allegory is relatively simple: the cultivated (“tame”) tree—Israel—begins to die and to decay, in response to which “the master of the vineyard” does some work on it and so brings out of it “young and tender branches” that show new promise (while the “main top” of the tree continues to decay). It’s not hard to see how this story matches up with a pretty specific historical sequence:
“it grew and waxed old” — from Israel’s beginnings to the division of the kingdoms
“and began to decay” — serious apostasy settles in in the period of the divided kingdom
“he pruned it” — under foreign forces, both kingdoms’ political power is cut back
“and digged about it” — the rise of the prophets, beginning with Elijah, unearths Israel’s root covenant
“and nourished it” — the prophets help lay the foundation for an initial return to the covenant
“young and tender branches” — small groups of faithful Israelites begin to develop as so many Israelite remnants
“the main top … began to perish” — the vast majority of Israel, though, continues in apostasy from the covenant
That, I should think, is clear. And it sets the stage for the next major sequence.
Whereas in verse 4, the master of the vineyard seemed simply to talk to himself about his plans, we are in verse 7 introduced to the master’s servant, and the remainder of the allegory is presented as a kind of ongoing conversation between the two. It isn’t difficult to see the master as the Lord, and it seems most likely that the servant is to be understood as a stand-in for the prophets collectively. The master’s initial actions give rise to the prophetic tradition, beginning in oral form with Elijah and in written form with Amos. Everything that happens in Israel from this point happens as a kind of joint effort of the Lord and His prophets.
First we get a plan—what Isaiah constantly refers to as the Lord’s work—and we’re told that it’s rooted in the master’s grief over losing the tree. The plan (verses 7-9) consists of three parts:
(1) to remove and then to burn the decaying branches on the tree’s top;
(2) to take the young and tender branches from the tree and graft or plant them elsewhere;
(3) to take branches from wild (uncultivated) trees and graft them into the original tree.
Interestingly, we get a division of labor in the verses describing the carrying out of the plan: the servant grafts in the wild branches and has the task of pruning, digging about, and nourishing the original tree into which they’ve been grafted; the master has the task of taking the young and tender branches elsewhere in the garden (“it mattereth not unto” the servant!). Interestingly, there’s no actual report of the burning of the fully decayed branches, though one presumes it took place.
Here again it’s not difficult to identify the obvious meanings of the elements of the allegory: the burning of the decayed branches is, presumably, the slaughter associated with the conquests of both Israel (by Assyria) and Judah (by Babylon); the removal of the young and tender branches is the transplantation of the remnants of Israel often remarked on in the Book of Mormon (the Lehites being one of them); the grafting in of wild branches is the introduction among Old World Israel of the Gentiles, presumably in the postexilic era. As the servant remains with the original tree, now filled with wild branches, it would seem that the prophets remain into the postexilic era of Israelite history, while the Lord gives His attention principally to the remnants He has scattered about elsewhere.
Then “a long time” passes away, opening onto the next sequence.
From this point, we get in the allegory less historical sequences than glimpses of moments within a larger history we don’t actually see unfold. With each “long time” that passes away, we miss most of the history, but see what its results are. And the results of the interventions of the previous sequence are, it seems, pretty good. The original tree is producing good fruit (the Gentiles are rooted in the covenant), and the branches from the original tree planted elsewhere are mostly producing good fruit as well—the first, the second, and the third branches all produce good fruit, but the fourth produces half good fruit and half bad fruit (and we immediately recognize the Nephites and Lamanites as the fruit of the last branch—though we might wonder whether the Nephites or the Lamanites are the good fruit).
That last branch—presumably the Lehites—is almost subjected to further work: the master tells the servant to pluck the branches with bad fruit from the tree, but the servant asks for a bit of clemency and further work. When the master agrees, the master and the servant go about “nourish[ing] all the fruit of the vineyard” (Jacob 5:28). It’s interesting that at this point in the sequence, the master and the servant are now always together, working together and in all parts of the vineyard. (This makes one wonder whether the servant isn’t actually the Son, while the master is the Father. Is it best to see the servant’s attachment to the original tree earlier in the allegory as the incarnation in the midst of the Israelite/Gentile mixture? And now that the Son has ascended to the Father, They go about Their work together?)
But all this gives way to another “long time” passing away, and so to another sequence.
When, some time later, the master and the servant return to the vineyard, they find that the original tree has now produced nothing but bad fruit. The master is rather pessimistic throughout the exchange that follows: the master despairs of the tree, but the servant points out that their actions have given life to the roots though the branches have been worth nothing; it takes some work, but the master sees the wisdom in this. And then the two go to see the other trees, all of which have similarly become corrupt (now it seems as if there were only three branches planted, curiously), with the half-and-half tree allowing the good branches to be overcome by the bad branches. This last revelation sets the master to despairing all over again—blaming everything in sight and wallowing in the failure. This sequence, interestingly, closes with the servant’s identification of the problem: “the loftiness of th[e] vineyard” (Jacob 5:48). The problem is that the branches have grown beyond the strength of the roots, beyond, it seems, the strength of the covenant.
The conversation continues, but in a rather different vein.
The problem, it seems, has only just been identified—and a solution therefore become possible—when the master announces a plan simply to be done with the entire vineyard: “Let us go to and hew down the trees of the vineyard and cast them into the fire, that they shall not cumber the ground of my vineyard. For I have done all! What could I have done more for my vineyard?” (Jacob 5:49). This sounds like the height of despair, but it doesn’t take much prodding from the servant (“Spare it a little longer” is all he says in verse 50) to turn the master’s decision over (“Yea, I will spare it a little longer” the master responds in verse 51). And the result is an entirely new plan: to graft branches from the transplanted trees back into the original tree to draw on the strength of the roots, and to graft the wild grafts that have been growing on the original tree into the now-wild transplants.
Yet again it isn’t difficult to see what the elements of the allegory symbolize. The wild branches once grafted into the original tree are the Gentiles who are now leaving the Old World to encounter the several transplanted remnants of Israel—most obviously in the New World for readers of the Book of Mormon. Moreover, the remnants of those remnants are now being returned, at least in terms of their understanding and perhaps even physically, to the covenant (the root) from which they were long since separated.
If that much is clear, it’s important to note the introduction at this point of a set of new characters: the master instructs the servant to “go to and call servants” in the plural, that they might collectively “labor diligently with [their] mights in the vineyard” (Jacob 5:61). But why is so large a group needed at this point? Simply because things have gotten so bad that much has to be done in order to watch every tree with great care, attending to every detail so that the trees can be guided toward fruitfulness. The servants are to do the grafting spoken of, but they’re then to do the digging and pruning and dunging necessary to produce growth. They’re also to keep a vigilant watch over the ratio of above-ground growth to root-strength—not clearing away too much of the evil above so that the good above isn’t overpowered by the strength of the below, and never letting what’s above sap the strength of what’s below. This careful ballet of sorts is the only way to bring everything to fruition, so that “the natural fruit” returns and “shall be one” (Jacob 5:68).
That’s the plan. The allegory ends with the plan’s execution.
The servants are gathered, and the execution of the plan begins with the master briefing the summoned servants—and a promise of joy. They get to work, and they’re successful as the “keep the root and the top … equal, according to the strength thereof” (Jacob 5:73). The work of the last days, it seems, is one of balancing the covenant and the kingdom. Soon “the bad had been cast away out of the vineyard and the good the Lord had preserved unto himself” (Jacob 5:74), and the master debriefs the servants with a congratulatory speech—coupled with a warning that things aren’t over: “And when the time cometh that evil fruit shall again come into my vineyard, then will I cause the good and the bad to be gathered. And the good will I preserve unto myself, and the bad will I cast away into its own place. And then cometh the season and the end, and my vineyard will I cause to be burned with fire” (Jacob 5:77). With that final and rather transparent word, the allegory comes to a complete end.
And so does my commentary on it. I turn, finally, to Jacob 7.
Sherem: Jacob 7
I’ve already said a bit about the fact that Jacob 7 comes as a bit of a surprise. We saw how chapters 1-3 showed Jacob seriously at odds with the Nephites as a whole, and how chapters 4-6 seem to mark a retreat from oral prophecy to written prophecy—apparently because Jacob had been largely rejected by his people. We also saw how chapter 6 saw Jacob shaken from his firmness in the Spirit because of his overanxiety for his people, such that the real thrust of the allegory of the olive tree was left out of his prophetic words. And we also saw how chapter 6 came to a definitive close with likely deliberate echoes of 2 Nephi 32-33, showing that Jacob believed he was done with his task of calling the people to repentance. When we find, after chapter 6, that there’s a chapter 7, it’s a bit shocking. We don’t expect anything else from Jacob at this point.
So what’s going on in chapter 7? And what could have inspired Jacob to write more? Well, quite frankly, the event recorded in Jacob 7 would seem to have given Jacob a bit of hope after so much despair. The Sherem event, despite the fact that it’s a tragedy, seems through its consequences to have helped Jacob to see that something could be done for the Nephites. Let’s see how.
I assume we’re all generally familiar with the story. There’s “a man” who shows up, and “he began to preach among the people and to declare unto them that there should be no Christ” (Jacob 7:1-2). Now, we have to be careful about how we interpret this. It’s rather common to speak of Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor as the three anti-Christs in the Book of Mormon, but that’s a gross oversimplification. Nehor never says anything about Christ one way or another. And Sherem is less an anti-Christ than a concerned defender of a certain understanding of the Law of Moses. It’s only Korihor who rails against the Christ in the kinds of ways we actually associate with an anti-Christ figure. So what’s really going on with Sherem? Well, we get a real taste for it when he comes to Jacob, having “hope to shake [him] from the faith” (Jacob 7:5).
Here are Sherem’s clarifying words to Jacob:
I have heard and also know that thou goest about much preaching that which ye call the gospel or the doctrine of Christ. And ye have led away much of this people that they pervert the right way of God and keep not the law of Moses, which is the right way, and convert the law of Moses into the worship of a being which ye say shall come many hundred years hence. And now, behold, I, Sherem, declare unto you that this is blasphemy. For no man knoweth of such things, for he cannot tell of things to come. (Jacob 7:6-7)
Okay, there’s quite a lot going on here. Let’s get clear on a few things. First, Sherem sees Jacob as a sort of theological rival, each of them preaching his own understanding of the Law of Moses. Second, what bothers him is specifically what Jacob (following Nephi) teaches about the Law—converting it, as Nephi did, into the typological worship of the coming Christ—which Sherem regards as blasphemy. Third, Sherem is convinced that it’s impossible to know anything about the distant future, and so he’s concerned that Jacob is doing something even more perverse.
Once these details are spelled out, Sherem looks a whole lot more innocent than we usually let on. He’s no modern atheist preaching against religion as such, at any rate. And his concerns are, frankly, theologically legitimate. He sees Nephi’s and Jacob’s approach to the Law of Moses (take a look at Nephi’s comments in 2 Nephi 11 and 2 Nephi 25, for instance) as an alteration of the Law, a decentering of it, even a delegitimation of it (remember that Nephi said that knowledge of the Christ rendered the Law dead!). And he recognizes that such an approach might be valid were it possible to know of the Christ so far in advance, but he has his doubts about that—and perhaps we’ve even seen why in our comments above on chapter 4: Jacob has there to explain why the Old World prophets don’t appear to have known anything about the coming Christ despite the fact, according to Jacob, that they knew all about those things. In a word, Sherem seems to be a close and pretty decent reader of the brass plates, and he sees nothing in either the Law or the Prophets to suggest that the Nephi/Jacob approach to the Law is anything but blasphemy.
Now, just because Sherem can be understood and can even be seen to be a bit innocent doesn’t mean he’s right. And the remainder of the story is dedicated to a kind of showdown.
Jacob and Sherem begin with the Christ: “Deniest thou the Christ, which should come? … If there should be a Christ, I would not deny him. But I know that there is no Christ—neither hath been, nor never will be” (Jacob 7:9). So they go to the source for their respective positions on the Christ: “Believest thou the scriptures? … Yea. … Then ye do not understand them, for they truly testify of Christ. Behold, I say unto you that none of the prophets have written nor prophesied save they have spoken concerning this Christ” (Jacob 7:10-11). Here everything, it would seem, has been put on the table. They’re both experts in scripture—that is, in the brass plates. But where one of them sees nothing about the Christ, the other sees nothing but the Christ. Again, Jacob 4 is crucial here, because we’ve seen that Jacob has to explain carefully why the brass plates, which are supposedly all about the Christ, don’t say anything about the Christ. It isn’t by reference to texts alone that this debate can be decided.
And so Jacob comes to the real heart of the matter: “It hath been made manifest unto me, for I have heard and seen, and it also hath been made manifest unto me by the power of the Holy Ghost. Wherefore, I know if there should be no atonement made, all mankind must be lost” (Jacob 7:12). Jacob, it seems, has been cheating. His interpretive method is guided by two extra-scriptural sources: (1) a vision (“heard and seen”—remember that Nephi mentioned this vision in 2 Nephi 11:3), and (2) the witness of the Holy Ghost. Sherem has had no such vision, but he can, if he’s familiar with Nephi’s writings, demand that he be privy to the Holy Ghost, since Nephi had promised (see 1 Nephi 10) that the Holy Ghost could give anyone a witness of the contents of the vision in question (which, we presume, was like Nephi’s in 1 Nephi 11-14). Hence Sherem’s demand: “Shew me a sign by this power of the Holy Ghost, in the which ye know so much” (Jacob 7:13). Again we’re probably too harsh against Sherem in thinking this is pure perversity. He’s asking for what he can only have believed Nephi had called for. It was Nephi who promised that the Holy Ghost could be received universally by those who sought it, and it was Nephi who said that all such things are confirmed by the Holy Ghost coming in the sign of the dove. Sherem’s petition for a sign is in some way an attempt to play Nephi’s/Jacob’s game. Of course, at the same, time, Sherem does it in unmistakable arrogance and skepticism.
Jacob’s response is a bit unsettling:
What am I that I should tempt God to shew unto thee a sign, in the thing which thou knowest to be true? Yet thou wilt deny it, because thou art of the devil. Nevertheless, not my will be done. But if God shall smite thee, let that be a sign unto thee that he hath power both in heaven and in earth, and also that Christ shall come. And thy will, O Lord, be done, and not mine. (Jacob 7:14)
This seems a bit rash in some ways, but it’s worth remembering how marginalized Jacob seems to have become by this point, and desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s very interesting that Jacob says that Sherem already knows the teachings concerning Christ to be true. We’ll come back to that in a moment. At any rate, Jacob’s prayer is answered, and Sherem is smitten.
It’s this that sets up the scene that gives Jacob hope again:
And it came to pass that, on the morrow, that the multitude were gathered together, and he spake plainly unto them and denied the things which he had taught them, and confessed the Christ and the power of the Holy Ghost and the ministering of angels. And he spake plainly unto them that he had been deceived by the power of the devil. And he spake of hell and of eternity and of eternal punishment. And he saith: I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God. For I denied the Christ and said that I believed the scriptures—and they truly testify of him. And because that I have thus lied unto God, I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful. But I confess unto God. And it came to pass that when he had said these words, he could say no more, and he gave up the ghost. (Jacob 7:17-20)
It would seem that Jacob was right: Sherem did know the truth concerning the Christ. Let’s say a bit about that, and then we need to look at this confessional event and what it tells us about the rekindling of Jacob’s hope.
Everything we said before made it sound as if Sherem’s position was perfectly justifiable. I still think that’s the case. But then we have this strange detail that suggests that he had known all along that Jacob’s position was the true one. What could have motivated his preaching then—apart from the fact that he was “deceived by the power of the devil”? That’s hard to know. As soon as he’s been smitten, he confesses the Christ and the Holy Ghost, and goes so far as to say that his approach to scripture might have amounted to an unpardonable sin! Is this just a bit melodramatic? Is Sherem simply ignorant of what makes a serious sin? All of this deserves more thought and attention. I don’t know, myself, exactly what to make of it. But the effect on the reader is pretty striking. The question of Christ as motivator for interpreting scripture rightly couldn’t be made more important.
But let me move on to this matter of the effect of the scene on the people and the way that inspires hope afresh in Jacob. Here’s the reaction of the people to the scene of Sherem’s final confession and death:
And when the multitude had witnessed that he spake these things as he was about to give up the ghost, they were astonished exceedingly, insomuch that the power of God came down upon them, and they were overcome, that they fell to the earth. Now this thing was pleasing unto me, Jacob, for I had requested it of my Father which was in heaven, for he had heard my cry and answered my prayer. (Jacob 7:21-22)
Suddenly we learn that at least part of what’s happened here has been staged—that Jacob’s been praying for a dramatic scene to have a dramatic effect. And it does, with everyone falling to the earth. And this seems to have begun to turn things around:
And it came to pass that peace and the love of God was restored again among the people. And they searched the scriptures, and hearkened no more to the words of this wicked man. (Jacob 7:23)
And that finally explains to us why Jacob bothers to tell this story. After such a despressed close to chapter 6, which was clearly intended to be the close to his own contribution to the small plates, he was reinvigorated by the circumstances surrounding Sherem. He saw hope again. (Perhaps what was most heartening to him was the fact that attention was turned again to the Lamanites—though without success; see Jacob 7:24-25.)
Finally, Jacob closes again in the touching words of verse 26:
And it came to pass that I, Jacob, began to be old. And the record of this people being kept on the other plates of Nephi, wherefore I conclude this record, declaring that I have written according to the best of my knowledge, by saying that the time passed away with us—and also our lives passed away—like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation in a wild wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions. Wherefore, we did mourn out our days.
Even when Jacob’s heartened, he’s pretty melancholy. But then the record is handed over to Enos, and we turn to a rather different sequence in Nephite history.
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